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Mad for Mexican

The beer is cold and so is the guacamole when the snapper hits the grill.

For hours, several whole fish have marinated in a chile-and-garlic seasoning, a specialty of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Now, they will be briefly charred and then wrapped in banana leaves so they may finish in a kind of tropical steam bath, staying succulent and moist.

No longer is this a back yard in Catonsville. It is a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Fresh fish roasting over hot coals, a primordial mix since men first started casting nets into the sea. The smells are sensuous and exotic.

Chef Michael Marx, owner of Baltimore's Blue Agave, is demonstrating that the marriage of backyard grilling and Mexican regional cuisine is a natural fit. Robust flavors. Simple technique. Hot chiles over hot coals.

The results are spectacular. If this weren't a Tuesday afternoon - and the tree-lined neighborhood practically evacuated at midday on a workday - the neighbors would no doubt be storming the back yard for a sample of the smoky, spicy seafood served with grilled corn on the cob, chips and salsa.

"Ultimately, it's about simplicity," says Marx, a San Diego native who opened his critically acclaimed Mexican restaurant one year ago. "That's the beauty of this kind of cooking."

Marx should know. He grew up with it. His family often did its grocery shopping south of the border. He made forays into South and Central Mexico long before he contemplated a life in restaurants.

Mexican cooking has never been a one-note cuisine, but a broad palette with distinct and subtle flavors from its varied regions. It is like the difference between New England clam chowder and a Southern hush puppy.

But outdoor cooking is almost universally loved throughout Mexico. From street vendors in Mexico City to open-pit cooking on a Baja sand dune, the idea of roasting meat or seafood over charcoal or wood has been at the heart of Mexican cuisine for centuries.

That tradition has finally taken hold in the United States, and a host of products, chiefly seasoning rubs and marinades, has hit supermarkets from coast to coast to spice up the humdrum backyard menus of burgers, steaks and chicken breasts. But none of these packaged seasonings is truly necessary for authentic Mexican grilling; usually just a backyard grill and a few basics such as garlic, lime juice, cilantro and chiles can suffice. (Don't be confused if your market calls them "chilies." That's the Anglo-American spelling.)

Rick Bayless, a Chicago chef and host of the Public Broadcasting Service cooking series "Mexico One Plate at a Time," believes the novice can start with good-quality ingredients and let the most important source of flavoring - the fire - do most of the work.

"Everybody goes for the simple meat tacos cooked over a simple charcoal or wood fire," says Bayless, who is currently shooting video for a new PBS Mexican cooking series this fall. "It's a regional specialty of northern Mexico. The pieces are sliced thin, salted and chopped small because it's usually not high-quality meat. But it's probably the best thing you can ever eat."

He also believes that good-quality Mexican food need not be difficult to cook.

The techniques are much the same as any backyard chef uses to grill steaks, chicken, fish or vegetables - direct or high-heat cooking to sear and medium-heat, indirect cooking to finish.

One of the simplest dishes he recommends is a Mexican version of grilled steak or carne asada. Just marinate the steak in lime juice, garlic and salt for an hour or two, spray with oil and grill. Serve with guacamole, salsa, cooked beans and a salad made with grilled cactus paddles.

In his own back yard, Bayless generally cooks over charcoal, throwing in a few wood chunks that have been soaked in water. Recently, he acquired a gas grill and appreciates its convenience.

"I'm one of those lovers of charcoal fire. It's not that much effort to build a fire, but I know most people find a gas grill easier," he says. "There are times when I choose it, too. Like in the middle of winter when you don't want to be outside for very long."

When Patricia Quintana talks about Mexican grilling, she makes it sound even simpler. The owner of a noted Mexico City cooking school, Quintana is often cited as a major influence in the growing interest in regional Mexican cooking in the United States.

She recommends roasting tomatoes and chiles over a medium-hot wood fire in the ash-covered ember stage and adding them to onion, garlic, water and salt to create a "great seasoning for meat." Serve tortillas on the side and beans from a pot, and "You have a meal," she says.

Another alternative she recommends is to grill a few serrano chiles until they are brown, chop them fine, add soy sauce and lime juice, and you have a marinade, she says.

"Serve a wonderful salsa on the side, maybe a green tomatillo salsa or a salsa fresca, and there you have it," she says. "Delicioso."

Quintana, author of "The Taste of Mexico" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1993, $30), even has a Balt-Mex first-course idea to serve with backyard barbecues. Try combining lump crab meat with salsa fresca and a dollop of olive oil with tostitos on the side for a Chesapeake Bay-inspired twist on the traditional Mexican ceviche, she says.

Besides being relatively simple, grilled Mexican food is generally considered healthier than some of the culture's indoor cuisine. No lard, no deep-fat frying. The cuts of meat are leaner, and seafood is a common alternative for the grill.

Like so many other forms of international cuisine, authentic Mexican cooking has become much more accessible in recent years with the proliferation of specialty groceries. In the Baltimore area, unusual ingredients such as frozen banana leaves, fresh cactus paddles or dried guajillo chiles can be found in La Guadalupana Restaurante and Grocery at Wolfe Street and Eastern Avenue in Fells Point.

One helpful accessory to consider purchasing is a molcajete - a kind of Mexican mortar made from volcanic stone. Spices ground in a molcajete are more finely pulverized than in a blender or food processor and are thought to produce a better flavor.

"Even if you don't have one, consider mashing your garlic and chiles in any kind of small mortar you might have around the house," says Bayless, who's often seen on his show with his trademark Chicago Bulls molcajete. "A food processor just doesn't extract the flavor."

And flavor, big bold flavor, is what Mexican grilling is all about. One final tip from the pros: Consider serving your grilled food with a good Mexican beer or a pitcher of margaritas to match the hot, spicy summer foods.

"When you're grilling foods, they're going to be picking up a lot more taste than if you're indoors pan-searing or oven-roasting," says George Hirsch, author of several grilling cookbooks, host of a PBS cooking series, "George Hirsch Living It Up," and a fan of Mexican flavors. "Whether it's wood or charcoal or whatever, you need more pronounced flavor to stand up to the taste. There can't be any better place for grilling."

Snapper a la Parilla en Ojas de Platano con Adobo Recado
(Grilled snapper in banana leaves with Adobo Recado seasoning)

Serves 4 to 6

4 to 6 whole snapper, cleaned and scaled (1 1/4 pounds each)

Adobo Recado (see below)

vegetable oil (to spray or brush fish)

1 package banana leaves (see note)

Let fish marinate in Adobo Recado for at least 4 hours but no more than 8, or else the acidic marinade will begin to dry out the fish.

Prepare charcoal grill. When coals are at their hottest, brush or spray oil on fish and place on grill. The fish need cook only a few minutes on each side to char the skin. Remove from grill. Wrap each fish entirely in banana leaves. Don't worry if they are loose-fitting, but you probably need more than 1 leaf to cover each fish.

Prepare grill by pushing coals to one side. Place leaf-wrapped fish on grill and put top down. The fish will need to cook in indirect heat for 20-30 minutes (about 250 degrees). Fish will be ready when the flesh flakes easily. Gently slice open charred banana leaves and serve hot.

Serve with wedges of lime, salsa fresca, guacamole and beans.

Note: Banana leaves are available frozen in most Latino and Asian specialty markets. They will need to be defrosted before use.

Adobo Recado
A classic Yucatecan seasoning

Makes enough to marinate 4 to 6 fish

1 cup corn oil

5 guajillo chiles, seeded and deveined (available in Latino specialty markets)

6 ancho chiles, seeded and deveined

2 chipotle chiles (seeded and deveined if dried are used; otherwise, use prepared chipotle adobo)

1 cup boiling water

3/4 tablespoon allspice, ground

1/4 teaspoon cloves, ground

1 teaspoon cumin, ground

1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano, hand-rubbed or ground

5 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons sugar

4 Roma tomatoes, charred until blistered over open flame or grill

1/2 teaspoon apple-cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Heat oil in a medium-sized saute pan over medium-high heat until hot, but not smoking. Fry the chiles, a few at a time, until slightly puffy and brown, about 10 seconds. Do not let them burn, or the adobo will taste bitter.

Shake off the excess oil from the chiles and place in a medium bowl. Reserve the cooking oil. Add the boiling water to the chiles and let soak until soft, about 20 minutes. Toss occasionally to make sure all the chiles soften evenly.

Discard the liquid and put the softened chiles and all the remaining ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Add enough water to make the texture smooth.

Heat 2 tablespoons of reserved chile oil in a large nonstick saucepan over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Pour the blended mixture into the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to reduce, sizzle and becomes darkly colored, about 10 minutes. If it boils too vigorously, lower the heat.

Mixture will keep, tightly covered, for several weeks in the refrigerator.

--From Michael Marx, chef-owner, Blue Agave

Grilled skirt-steak tacos with roasted poblano rajas

Makes 12 tacos, serving 4 as a light meal

2 medium white onions, sliced into 1/2 -inch rounds (keep the rounds intact for easy grilling)

3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/4 teaspoon cumin, preferably freshly ground

salt

1 pound beef skirt steak, trimmed of surface fat as well as the thin white membrane called silverskin

3 medium poblano chiles

vegetable oil for brushing or spraying onions and meat

bowl of lime wedges

12 warm, fresh corn tortillas (see note)

In a food processor or blender, combine one-quarter of the onions, the garlic, lime juice, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Process to a smooth puree. Place the steak in a nonaluminum baking dish. Smear the marinade over both sides. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.

Heat a gas grill to medium-high or light a charcoal fire and let it burn just until the coals are covered with gray ash and very hot. Either turn the burners in the center of the grill to medium-low or bank the coals to the sides of the grill for indirect cooking.

Lay the chiles on the hottest part of the grill, and cook, turning occasionally, until the skin is blistered and uniformly blackened all over, about 5 minutes. Be careful not to char the flesh, only the skin. Remove the chiles from the grill and cover with a kitchen towel.

Brush or spray the remaining onion slices with oil and lay the whole rounds of onions on the grill in a cooler spot than you chose for the chiles. When they've started to soften and are brown on the first side (about 10 minutes), use a spatula to flip them and brown the other side. Transfer to an ovenproof serving dish and separate the rings.

Rub the blackened skin off the chiles, then pull out the stems and seed pods. Rinse briefly. Slice into 1/4 -inch strips and stir into the onions. Taste, and season with salt, usually about 1/4 teaspoon. Keep warm in a 200-degree oven.

Remove steak from marinade and shake off excess. Oil the steak well on both sides and grill in hottest part of the grill. Grill, turning once, until richly browned and done to your liking, about 1 1/2 minutes to 2 minutes per side for medium-rare.

Cut the long piece of skirt steak into 3- to 4-inch lengths, then cut each section across the grain. Mix with the chiles and onions, season with a little salt and set on the table along with lime wedges and hot tortillas, for your guests to make soft tacos.

Note: The easiest way to heat store-bought tortillas is in the microwave: Drizzle a clean kitchen towel with 3 tablespoons water and wring the towel to distribute moisture evenly. Use the towel to line a microwave-safe casserole. Lay a dozen tortillas inside, cover, then microwave at 50 percent power for 4 minutes. Let stand for 2 minutes. Tortillas will stay warm for 20 minutes.

--From "Mexico One Plate at a Time" by Rick Bayless (Scribner, 2000, $35)

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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